Musical Training Increases Cognitive Abilities

When two scientists at the University of Auckland carried out research on whether musicians use the same brain areas to process both music and language, they discovered some interesting information about how background music affects cognition in musicians versus non-musicians. Lucy Patston and Lynette Tippett tested two groups of 36 adults – the one group consisting of musicians with at least ten years of musical training, including having performed in university or at a national level, with the second group consisting of non-musicians. The results revealed that musical training may physically change the actual neural organization of various cognitive activities.

Each participant in the test was required to complete language comprehension tests, as well as tests of visuospatial ability. (Visuospatial skills allow us to perceive objects along with the relationship among objects, such as recognizing that, although a car in front of us appears larger than a car in the distance, they are in fact similar in size.) The tests were carried out in three different situations – firstly in silence, secondly with classical music played expertly on the piano, and thirdly, with classical music played on the piano with some obvious mistakes.

The overall results of the tests revealed that the musicians performed better than the non-musicians on both the language comprehension and visuospatial ability tests, under all conditions. Bearing in mind that the test subjects were not IQ-tested, but chosen for having similar verbal and visual intelligence, these findings are in line with other studies comparing children who have had musical training with those who had not, as well as similar studies with adults – musical training appears to increase cognitive abilities.

The researchers also found that in the group of musicians, the participants performed well on the visuospatial tests irrespective of whether they were carried out in silence or with the two different types of background music. But on the language comprehension tests, the musicians did better in silence. When the music was playing, the musicians made more errors, adding weight to the hypothesis that musicians use the same neural networks to process music and language.